Cornell University on Tuesday tapped USC's provost, Elizabeth Garrett, to be its next president, naming a woman to the post for the first time and continuing a trend toward female leaders of the elite Ivy League's campuses.
Garrett, 51, who is also senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Southern California, will begin the job in July 2015. She will replace David J. Skorton, 64, who is leaving to become secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Garrett's appointment to the Ithaca, N.Y., university comes at a time when college campuses nationwide are facing a litany of challenges, from allegations they have failed to address the problem of campus sexual assaults to the question of how to keep a lid on student loan debts.
In May, the Obama administration named 55 colleges and universities under investigation for possible violations of federal law over their handling of sexual assault cases. Cornell was not on the list, but USC was.
President Obama this year also ordered caps on repayment of student loans to be 10% of income.
At a news conference in Ithaca, Garrett said both issues would be on her radar.
While acknowledging that students often leave college with hefty loans to repay, she said research showed that people who graduate with four-year degrees have "vastly improved lives."
"That is a very good investment," Garrett said of the expense, which at Cornell can run into tens of thousands of dollars per academic year.
"They face a future where they can repay this very good investment," Garrett said, adding that it was important that a four-year education be accessible for all students.
Cornell officials said a search committee had worked since March to select Garrett from an initial field of about 200 candidates.
USC's president, C.L. Max Nikias, called Garrett's departure a "tremendous loss" for the Los Angeles university. Garrett joined USC in 2003. Before becoming provost and vice president for academic affairs in 2010, she served as vice provost and vice president for academic planning and budget.
"In these various roles, she has proven to be a remarkably dynamic leader," Nikias said in a statement. "She will be deeply missed at USC."
Garrett will become the 13th president of Cornell, which was founded in 1865. According to the university's website, its enrollment is 21,593. The university joins Brown, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania in naming a female president. Princeton also was led by a woman until she stepped down after the most recent academic year.
Garrett said she was honored to become Cornell's first female leader and noted that as an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma, she never imagined becoming president of an Ivy League institution.
"But I have to tell you, it feels great," said Garrett, who described herself as an avid fan of reading mystery novels on planes, hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains and doing needlepoint.
Garrett attended the University of Virginia Law School and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. She has also served as a deputy dean at the University of Chicago, an experience she said would help prepare her for the Northeast's harsh winters.
Asked what she would miss most about Los Angeles, Garrett did not hesitate.
"I will miss the ocean," she said. But Garrett said she looked forward to getting to "switching bodies of water" and getting to know the Finger Lakes of upstate New York.